Giving back despite advancing years
Margaret Jennings speaks to Maureen Kavanagh, who says we need to wake up to the contribution older people make to their families and society
MAUREEN Kavanagh doesn’t have to look too far to find inspiration for ageing with vigour and positivity; her 91-year-old mother has lead the way and she sees examples all over the country daily within the Active Retirement Ireland association, of which she is CEO.
“My mother Mary Whelan is the matriarch of the family in Waterford. Every day she has been an example to me my whole life. She’s been a fantastic independent woman,” says Maureen, who is in her late 50s.
“She reared a family of seven throughout the hardships that life has thrown at her. She is the centre of the family; her great grandchildren, grandchildren and children all still hover around her. She’s a wonderful woman. She’s been a fantastic role model.”
That template for ageing independently and with enthusiasm is also being replicated throughout the country, says Maureen, who took over the job of the 40-year-old organisation a decade ago.
The Dublin-based mother of two, who will soon become a first-time grandmother, says her attitude towards her own ageing is continually influenced by what she sees within the 25,000-member organisation.
“Every time I go to an event and I see the energy members have, I want to be them when I retire. And like our members, I want to be able to give back to my community and I want that there will be opportunities for me to do that; I want to be seen as a citizen when I retire and not a dependant. I’d like to see that major societal change in Ireland.”
Unfortunately ageism is “rampant”, she admits. For example the health system is biased towards portraying older members of the population as “sick”.
“When we talk about getting old in this country, our fear is that getting old is being sick and dependant. In our nursing home systems for instance, when people go in there, they are treated as if they are sick instead of offering them places where people can actually enjoy life and have lots of activities.
“That’s all about ageism. We have members who are living their lives to the full every day, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, because they know that nobody is going to say ‘you are too old’.”
Over the past 10 years the Active Retirement Ireland association branches have grown from 300 to 550 countrywide.
“But it’s a continual challenge because 13% of the population is over 65 and by 2050 they reckon that over 30% of the population will be over 65, so we have a lot of work to do to make sure that as we get older, it is seen as a bounty for this country, not a drain,” says Maureen.
On that note, she wishes that Irish society would wake up instead to the fact that there are many, many older people contributing silently on an everyday level: “It really opened my eyes, the wonderful work that our members do, and the invisibility of it — how active they are in their families, how active they are in their communities, how much they give back and are willing to do as volunteers and it all goes on invisibly, in the main society.”
While there are strong advocates within the association, speaking up for change for their peers, there are also many members who say “If I didn’t have my group to go down to, I’m not sure I would have anything to get up for”, says the CEO. In that sense, loneliness, one of the modern scourges of our time, is being assuaged.
Although the most recent census revealed that one in six people has never used the internet and almost half of those were aged 6075, Maureen has seen a growing trend of usage among members over the past decade, with training courses on offer by Age Action, and the incentive to keep online contact with family members abroad.
“I also see changes in members working to get healthier as they get older, through social activities and cultural activities, but also realising the importance of staying physically fit.”
She herself doesn’t smoke and drinks very little alcohol and tries to eat fresh fruit and vegetables.
“I had a hip replacement last August — a combination of wear and tear but also a fall that I had — and I realised the importance of doing everything I was told to get over that very quickly.
“But also I know I want to have a longer life and a healthier life and know that if I do it now, with my lifestyle, I will reap the benefits as I get older. And I see how healthy our members can be — they dance, they sing, they enjoy life, they get involved and all of that is very important for mental health.”
And referring back to what she sees all around her, she says: “Some of our members for instance, do indoor bowls — some are in their early 90s and will play this physical game for three days solid at our bowls event. So it is about attitude.”
TIRELESS ADVOCATE: Maureen Kavanagh, CEO of Active Retirement Ireland, is inspired by the energy of the association’s 5,000 members.